Muskrats In Long Pond


Two muskrats busy in Long Pond as the sun sets in early spring.
Two muskrats busy in Long Pond as the sun begins to set in early spring:  Note the long, scaly tail used for swimming.

Despite its smaller size, the muskrat (Ondatra zibethica) can easily be mistaken for a beaver (Castor canadensis) or river otter (Lontra canadensis), as all are semi-aquatic mammals often seen in the water. Without a scale, all three look very similar while swimming with nose, eyes and ears streamlined with the surface of the water; make a note of its tail structure and swimming habits to help determine the species. Also note that the beaver and river otter are chiefly nocturnal and not often seen during the daytime.

The muskrat can easily be distinguished by its long, scaly, black tail which is slightly flattened from side to side and used propel itself through the water. In contrast, the beaver  has a wide scaly tail which is flattened from top to bottom (shaped like a paddle) and is often heard slapping its tail against the water while diving. The river otter can appear somewhat playful in the water, diving often to catch fish, and is a more efficient swimmer with a long, thick and tapering, furred tail which is used in combination with its hind legs and semi-webbed feet in an undulating swimming motion. Like the otter, muskrats will dive beneath the surface to collect food such as aquatic vegetation as well as shellfish, frogs and sometimes fish.

Muscrat carrying vegetation
Muskrat carrying vegetation to an underwater entrance to its house on Long Pond in April

Muskrats are slower swimmers and generally travel in direct lines to and from their 2-3ft tall conical houses made of marsh vegetation. Entrances to these houses are general sometimes underwater, so don’t be surprised if you see them dive beneath the surface several meters before reaching the shoreline.

Background on the Piping Plover and Some Thoughts on Shared Territories

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird that nests on mostly sandy and somewhat barren beaches with some pebbles, shells, scattered beach grass and small plants. Their nests are located above the mean high tide mark and consist of small indented “scrapes” in the sand while the eggs blend in closely with the landscape, resembling small speckled stones. They tend to avoid nesting in areas with a lot of human activity, although they have been known to nest in close proximity to heavy recreational use areas. Major threats to eggs and young chicks are predators such as crows and foxes as well as human activities such as off-road vehicles, pedestrians and unleashed dogs. A major threat to the species is a general loss of nesting habitat mostly due to human development. Tides and storm surges are continuing to overwash higher elevations on our coasts due to rising sea levels and greater storm surges. What would be newly created nesting habitat for nesting shorebirds (replacing older areas, now inaccesible due to tidal inundation), is now restricted by existing development along our shorelines.

Every spring, piping plovers return to the sandy beaches of Long Island to nest (most birds even returning to the same beaches each year). The East End is known for its beautiful beaches, and between us (humans) and the birds, there is only so much beach to go around during the summer months. Because the species is federally endangered and threatened in New York State, specific protection of their nesting habitat is required. Sharing these valuable resources (our beaches) is a fair option for us to provide these beach nesting shorebirds, and we do this each year by giving up a portion of our beaches during the nesting season (April through August). By offering this shared space, we are also actively respecting and maintaining the integrity of our natural landscapes on which we also inherently depend. In the end, we are inspiring a better living environment for all of us!

A pair of piping plover resting in the sand at Louse Point in East Hampton in late March.
Well camouflaged, a pair of piping plovers rest in the sand at Louse Point in East Hampton last week.

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